Burma Chronicles: a view on the ground of one of the world's most oppressive regimes
I had heard of French Canadian comics creator Guy Delisle's book "Pyongyang," about his experiences living in the titular capital of North Korea, but had never read it, or anything else by Delisle for that matter. However, it had always been on my list of books to check out if I got the chance. While browsing through a local bookstore recently, I found not "Pyongyang" but instead this book, also by Delisle and instead about his experiences living in Burma/Myanmar (he mostly refers to the country as Burma, so I will as well). Since I work with refugee populations, including Burmese and Karen refugees, I figured this might be an interesting book to read, to better understand the situation these people were coming from. I was not wrong.
The book recounts the various experiences of Delisle and his family as they move to Burma for his wife's job as a program manager for Medecins Sans Frontieres France. The stories range from anecdotes of what Delisle saw and the people he meets on his walks around Rangoon pushing his infant son in a stroller to incidents of frustration as the repressive government makes life hard for MSF France and other NGOs by restricting how long they can be out in the field and denying them access to the populations that need their help the most. All in all, we get an interesting "man-on-the-ground" view of the absurdity of life in Burma: a place nearly absent of crime (because of the horrendous penalties if you do get caught) where newspapers are regularly printed with large empty spaces for all the articles that have been repressed, where soldiers are a constant sight everywhere you go, and where the road going by Aung Sun Su Kyi's house is shut down permanently.
Into all this Delisle thrusts himself, and it wouldn't have been the same experience if his personality wasn't such a great big part of the story. Along with his relatively in-depth analysis of the sociopolitical situation, Delisle has strips where all he's doing is complaining about the heat or the humidity, or where he makes observations about the neighborhood people he encounters on his daily walk (most of whom ignore him but are enthralled by his adorable infant son Louis). It is where the personal and political collide that things get really interesting: for instance, after a friend of Delisle publishes an article in a French newspaper which quotes Delisle saying something uncomplimentary about the military regime, one of the students of an informal animation class Delisle had been teaching disappears, because he worked for the government and being associated with Delisle was a liability. Often these stories have an air of absurdity to them, such as when Delisle and his wife discover they can't send emails to MSF-France headquarters in Paris...because the tracking software that's been reading those emails has a bug in it which causes them to bounce back. After several months in Burma, they take this news with amusement and irritation, rather than surprise or anger.
All in all, this is a great way to learn about day-to-day life in one of the most repressed countries in the world. If you want to learn more about Burma, or if you love the genre of comics journalism, definitely check out this book. And now I am more than ever determined to track down "Pyongyang," to see if it's as good as this was.